Since the birth of modern-day comic books in the late-1930’s the issue of creator’s rights, and the violation of those rights has been a contentious one. At various times in the long and winding history of the industry, creators have argued against their treatment at the hands of the big publishing houses, and fought for their, and other creators rights.
Most notably perhaps, Neal Adams, as well as attempting to unionize comic book creators and helping to form the Comic Creators Guild in the 1970’s, also played a huge role in ensuring long overdue recognition and remuneration for Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster from DC Comics.
Marvel also had run-ins with another industry legend in the form of Jack Kirby, over the disappearance of pages of his original artwork. Many comic creators of the day, including Alan Moore and Frank Miller, voiced their weighty support for Kirby.
In the late 1970’s and 1980’s several comic creators took advantage of the Direct Market distribution system to self-publish their work, including Dave Sim, creator of Cerebus, and Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, creators of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
This approach carried through into the creation of several independent publishing houses such as Pacific Comics and Eclipse Comics, followed by independents Dark Horse and Fantagraphics. The emergence of these independent publishers forced the big publishing houses to take notice and arguably led to a change in their practices. The creation of the Vertigo imprint at DC Comics being perhaps one of the most significant ones.
So creator-owned comics have existed for decades, but right now it feels like they are really in the ascendancy.
One reason for this put forward by The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman in a recent interview on CBR is the relative stability of the current creator-owned comic titles, compared to the titles coming from the big two. Kirkman points out that “There’s no stability at the Big Two right now, and I think Direct Market readers are realizing that there’s a tremendous amount of stability in something like Chew. It comes out monthly. It’s always by the same creative team. If you’ve read issue #1, you know that that stuff is going to play out in issue #30, and a lot of thought has been put into that.”
I think Kirkman makes a really good point here. Previously creator-owned comics were unreliable in terms of when they were released, how regularly they came out, and whether they would even survive. Now it is the comics featuring the mainstream superhero characters which are subject to sudden changes in writer, artist or editor; the characters or continuity can change without warning; and long established titles can suddenly be re-numbered. We all know why the big comics publishers do this and for many readers it can be exciting and it no doubt garners interest from outside the closed world of comics. But for people who actually enjoy these characters and invest their time and money in a particular title it could just as easily put them off.
Consider two different scenarios:
First, a person who has never read a comic book in their life before hears about DC’s new 52 titles in the mainstream media. They’re intrigued enough to find their local comic shop and they happen to pick up a couple of different titles. One of these titles has a complete change of creative team after 7 issues and the other is cancelled after 10 issues.
Second scenario: A person who has never read a comic book in their life before sees Kick-Ass at the cinema and is intrigued enough to go to their local comic shop to check out the origins of the film. So they buy the Kick-Ass graphic novel and they also pick up a copy of the first issue of Criminal by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. They go back to the comic shop a month later for issue 2 and they return again and enjoy a complete self-contained run of a comic where the characters are fully realised and the story is plotted and well-thought out and the creators don’t change halfway through.
Here we have two very different experiences of comics which don’t take too much of a stretch of imagination to see happening. But is it only in today’s comic world that scenario two could take place?
Obviously film and television play a huge part in the interest and success of creator-owned comics; more so today than ever. A lot of interest is generated by the television audience of Walking Dead and the audience of films such as the aforementioned Kick-Ass and 30 Days of Night. These other forms of media bring people in to the comic shops or to on-line comic outlets. They may pick up a mainstream super-hero title from Marvel or DC but they may also pick up a copy of a creator-owned title from Image or Dark Horse.
Another aspect from a creator’s point of view is the fact that they are putting their name to something that is quite definitively their own product. So if it fails it is down to them. Surely that makes them put everything they have into their comic to make it as good as it can be. I’m not saying creators working for Marvel and DC don’t do the same but if you don’t own the characters or the property how can you stop the editorial process from stifling your creative vision? We all know executives in Hollywood like to get involved in the creative process of film-making and I imagine the same is true of Warner Bros and Walt Disney Corp, the respective owners of DC Comics and Marvel Comics. If the only person you have to answer to is the readers, surely that’s a better motivator to producing great books month after month.
The quality of creator-owned comics on the whole is definitely what shines through for me. Obviously the quality varies between titles and you may not like a particular genre or a particular character or a particular story, but the diversity of titles being published each week in the creator-owned field, means there will definitely be something worth your time. And, more than likely, if you give a title your time, you will be rewarded with a rich reading experience and possibly a new favourite comic book.
So is the current success of creator-owned comics a unique situation? Mark Millar has a slightly different view. In the CBR interview he points out that most popular culture movements are generally cyclical, and trends come and go. Comic books are no different. Millar believes that “towards the end of the decade, there will be a new wave of writers and artists who come up at Marvel and DC to become superstars, and we’ll have a massive shift back to those books.”
So, just like in the early 1990’s when Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee and several other artists and writers left Marvel to start Image Comics, big-name creators will continue to leave the big two publishers to do creator-owned stuff, and they will be replaced by young hot-shot writers and artists who keep people reading the mainstream superhero titles.
So is Millar right? Is Kirkman right? Yes and yes. In my opinion the points they make are both valid and pertinent. I agree that pop culture has cycles and the recent history of comics confirms this to be the case. But I also think there is a difference today, as opposed to the 70’s and 80’s. That difference is the added reach and influence creators can have through the internet and social media. It has become much easier to directly connect with the readers of comics through the internet. It has also become much easier for creators to produce comics and distribute them digitally for very little cost. They can either distribute them as web comics through various blogs, web comic directories, or newer ventures such as the recently launched Monkeybrain Comics partnership with the digital comic distributor Comixology. I think this has given the creators even more freedom to experiment and produce really exciting, innovative works of art.
Much of the creator-owned titles that can currently be picked up from comic shop shelves are published by Image Comics. They’ve already had three out of the four titles in our Comic of the Week feature, with Saga #5, Near Death #10 and Harvest #1. So what is it about Image that attracts some of the best creators around, and seems to inspire them to produce their very best work? In a recent interview with Comics Alliance Brian K Vaughan, co-creator of the excellent Saga with artist Fiona Staples had this to say: “Image might be the only publisher left that can still offer a contract I would consider “fully creator-owned.” Saga is a really important story to me, so I wanted a guarantee of no content restrictions or other creative interference, and I needed to maintain 100% control and ownership of all non-publishing rights with the artist, including the right to never have our comic turned into a movie or television show or whatever.”
That says it all really. And it goes back to the core philosophy at the heart of Image, back to the time the studio was first set up. Firstly that Image would not own any creator’s work; the creator would. Secondly, that no Image partner would interfere – creatively or financially – with any other partner’s work. For a creator of comic books surely that has to be a very attractive way of working.
And from a readers point of view I feel a lot happier knowing that the content of the comic in my hands is owned by the person who created it. Surely that’s the way it should be?